My Areas: Balham (text)
Late 1996 and Dave and I were dead excited as the Big Move finally approached. It had been almost 18 months since we’d finished university and we’d outgrown our provincial Surrey pubs – ‘proof’ of that ample as we’d chant ‘Balham Boys’ in an objectionable sub-hooligan/Oi! way to the others. We finally moved just before Christmas, but weren’t settled in into the new year. Just keen to move to the smoke, I took a rent cut for the tiny boxroom – a decision that would quite literally go on to haunt me.
My wider London experience had generally been limited at that time to warehouse raves four or five years back, football matches, art galleries and record shops – nothing of permanence. I’d been to Balham once before but knew little of SW12 beyond Hancock’s reference to it being the ‘gateway to the south’ but it looked a decent area, not too poncey or gentrified despite good residential streets. We got a nice terrace house on Bellamy Street five minutes from Clapham South station. There was a decent local on the corner (which I’d only frequent when inebriated) and a no-frills chippy round the corner. On the high street were the standard issue retail shops, Balham market a bit like Brixton’s and up to Balham tube/BR the Wetherspoons and Woolworth’s. Beyond that was the Polish social club and the nice looking Du Cane residential development from the 1930s. I knew about this from a friend at the guns ‘n ammo publishers I was working at, a white guy who helped run the town’s soca carnival with his Caribbean wife. It seemed a good area, not too earnest and not too out to impress its multicultural nature, and while like many a zone 2/zone 3 area could come across quite suburban was actually solidly metropolitan in spirit. Yes it had been attracting ‘young(ish) professionals’ priced out of nearby Clapham or Fulham to those nice back-streets for a while, but we were perhaps in the vanguard of a much more substantial but nevertheless transient inflow looking to place themselves close to the action; Balham would go on to be transformed as south-west London became the place to be (in the narrow minds of some).
Straight away, however, we got a taste of unscrupulous London ways as the landlord, spiv shades and all, got caught for low-level fraud. But that turned out to be a blessing as his maintenance man Kev took over the flat and actually got to work on some of the jobs the former would never have authorised. Yet it was what Dave and I did on our first day that proved to be the key to my first year or so in London – we went to the Duke of Devonshire from the early afternoon, and got shitfaced playing pool and keeping an eye on the sport. Then we went back in the next day to be told how pissed we were and took it as a compliment. This was how I would mainly utilise my new-found ‘freedom’.
Balham embodied much of the personal dichotomies I was wrestling with at the time – sartorially I settled on a basic jeans and coat (Duffer) with Reebok classics as I often felt the pull of prole as my mark of difference even as the others were happy to fit into the mostly bourgeois milieu we were swimming in. Balham was my gateway to new social-cultural areas but I often used it just to meet up with friends from Leeds University, or just have the home counties boys up. Another group was emerging, Dave’s sporty pals from Swansea, who were all heavy social drinkers, though they did at least know some girls. Brixton, Stockwell and other little pockets offered the nightlife I craved but more often than not I settled for getting pissed in ‘the Dev’ or somewhere in Clapham. ‘Garridge’ was immanent in the area but almost as a mirage - my involvement in it restricted to riding in Dave’s car on a Sunday with the pirates on. Tina Moore, Scott Garcia and all that we were down with but were never at any jams. My record purchases were still drum and bass and house/techno, but I was a year or so away from regular immersion in either circle.
I did not just feel contained in that one area, however, as there were two regular, and instructive, lines of flight. Through the Swansea crowd I ended up playing football for Winchmore Hill in N21, so most Saturdays Matt and I headed there. This did not hinder our alcoholic progress but, with the aid of the club bar, and cans for the train/tube back, merely exacerbated it (used to love the pissed rush of the Victoria Line). We went to Amsterdam three times in a year, having a great and utterly indulgent time – the odd paranoia attack especially on plunging into Antwerp motorway tunnels notwithstanding. The ‘caning’ ways of the 90s were beginning to ensnare me even though it was not clear I was mentally able to cope with such excess.
As the drinking increased, making three heavy nights from Thursday the rule rather than the exception, Sunday nights in the box room became unbearable. Granted I didn’t help myself by tuning into dark techstep on the pirates (didn't know the name of the tune at the time, but i had Nasty Habits' Shadow Boxing going round my mind in ever intensifying circles for months on end - defunked techstep may have killed the d&b dream but that Doc Scott number was certainly an effective emblem of oblivion). Yet nothing was going to alleviate acute intoxication so I would admit defeat and end up watching and eating crap downstairs until daylight. A couple of Mondays at the Surrey office they said go home I looked so terrible then at the workplace I’d moved to in town the Sabbatical Terror became a bit of a cult subject among confidantes.
By late 97/early 98 Balham was a known place and booming (new supermarkets and restos, trendy pubs, even the one near Clapham South that used to say ‘no students’ had revamped), but I knew I had to move from the boxroom and the area. The connections I was making, as nice as everyone was (on the lash at least, I didn’t know them outside of that) were not helping me to discover anything at all, or make use of the capital outside pubs and bars, and the spliff inbetween (how cool!). That was not their fault, but I could at least help myself. My cousins had a room spare in their flat in Battersea and I thought that would be a good restart: I had made all-too predictable use of my first stab at parent-free and single life in the city. Photos here